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Mount Ruang eruption sends Malaysia air traffic into chaos

PETALING JAYA – It could be weeks before flights between the peninsula and Sabah and Sarawak return to normal after a volcanic eruption left air traffic over the two states in chaos, says weather experts.

Much will depend on wind patterns and volcanic intensity due to the ongoing Mount Ruang volcanic eruption in north Sulawesi and disruptions may last until mid-May, said climatologist Dr Azizan Abu Samah.

He said it is crucial to monitor at what height and in which direction the volcanic ash is being transported by prevailing wind conditions.

“We are now in the inter-monsoon season and the air may not clear until May when the south-west monsoon sets in. The main issue is how the volcanic plume is transported by the wind. We do not want airplanes to fly into the plume which could cause damage to planes or malfunctions,” he said on April 18.

Thousands of air passengers in the two states were left stranded when Mount Ruang unleashed its fury in north Sulawesi, Indonesia, and airlines have been left awaiting the green light to resume service.

At press time, only AirAsia had announced that it had “reinstated” some flights involving the Bintulu, Kuching, Sibu, Kota Kinabalu, Johor Bahru and Kota Baru routes on April 18.

The low-cost carrier said in a statement that it had notified the affected passengers and advised them to check their emails and mobile phones for cancellation notifications.

Current weather satellite images, Dr Azizan said, show the presence of fine particulate matter that are 2.5 microns or less between 18,000ft and 33,000ft over Sabah.

“Most airlines tend to fly at between 18,000ft and 33,000ft and may be affected by the ash flow not only in northern Borneo but also in Kuching in Sarawak,” he said.

According to the Civil Aviation Authority of Malaysia (CAAM), the volcanic ash clouds moving westerly observed within the Kota Kinabalu flight information region (FIR) will pose a significant risk to aircraft safety.

CAAM chief executive officer Norazman Mahmud said this had affected multiple air routes and airports in the region.

“The eruption prompted the issuance of Significant Meteorological Information (Sigmet) 1 by the Malaysian Meteorological Department at 6am, indicating the presence of ash clouds moving westerly at a speed of 30 knots from the surface to 55,000ft and intensifying.

“This has affected multiple air routes and airports in the region,” he said in a safety notice issued to airlines operators yesterday.

A sigmet is a weather advisory for pilots that alerts them to potentially hazardous weather conditions.

According to Mr Norazman, airports within the affected area, including Tawau and Lahad Datu, should implement measures to mitigate the impact of volcanic ash on ground operations, such as regular monitoring of runway conditions and implementing appropriate cleaning procedures.

He said the volcanic ash clouds could cause severe damage to aircraft engines and aircraft systems, leading to potential engine failure, reduced visibility and damage to critical components.

“The volcanic ash can also interfere with aircraft avionics, posing a serious threat to flight safety. Therefore, aviation stakeholders must exercise extreme caution and implement appropriate measures to mitigate the risks associated with volcanic ash encounters,” he said.

He advised air operators to closely monitor meteorological updates, volcanic ash advisories and Notice to Airmen issued by relevant authorities. – THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK